As a parent of four, I regularly encounter bullying. No, my kids aren’t getting abused at school. But we often receive messages from educators informing us of the symptoms and types of bullying. Honestly, it must be hard to be a bully these days, either at school or in the workplace, with everyone so well informed.
But what about bullying at church? Hardly anyone talks about this – unless it’s sexual abuse, in which case it’ll make the front page. But there are other types of bullying. I’ve heard hundreds of stories from readers and church leaders. You wouldn’t believe the damage done to people in the name of God.
Jesus is not a bully and his church ought to be a safe place. But religion turns people into bullies. (By religion I am referring to that pseudo-spiritual system of self-improvement that Jesus condemned.)
Bullying is using power to control, harm, or intimidate others, which sounds a lot like what religion does all the time. In essence, religion is a system to control and coerce people through intimidation and manipulation. Which makes religion pretty stinkin’ evil.
So why aren’t we talking about this? If we are to stand up for the weak (Ps 82:3-4), doesn’t that mean standing up to bullies wherever they are found?
My desire is not to name and shame anyone (and I won’t publish comments that do), but to start a conversation about bullying behavior. I suspect a lot of church bullying is unintentional. With the best of intentions I have bullied people from the pulpit. This was wrong. Forgive me. My only excuse is I didn’t know I was doing it, which is why we’re here.
My purpose is not to hurt anyone but to identify hurtful behaviors so that all may be free and Jesus may be glorified. If you have come looking for stones to throw, you are in the wrong place. But if you want to be forewarned about the types of bullying in the church, read on. Here is an incomplete list of 30+ ways we use power to harm others in the church. Let me know what I missed.
Bullying behaviors in the church
A: Bullying from the pulpit
- Preaching law (which condemns and inflames sin (1 Cor 15:56, 2 Cor 3:9)
- Lording it over others (1 Peter 5:3). “Obey the man of God!”
- Terrorizing people. “God is mad at you. He hates you.”
- Making threats: “If you’re not careful, Jesus will blot out your name.”
- Dispensing condemnation: “You’re not doing enough. Receive some guilt.”
- Withholding communion from those who need it. “Communion is for the worthy.”
- Naming and shaming publicly: “Let’s see who hasn’t paid their tithes this month”
- Prostituting the love of God. “God loves you more if you obey.”
- Extortion: “If you don’t tithe, God will take it off you in doctors’ bills.”
- Pressuring people to get with the program. “If you’re not serving you’re not part of us.”
- Shutting down dialogue prematurely. “I’ve heard enough. I’m pulling rank.”
- Yelling, threats of violence.
- Attacking those with a different revelation. “False teacher. Heretic. Burn ‘em all!”
- Cultivating a “do not ask questions” environment. “Good soldiers do what they’re told.”
- Passing off punishment as discipline. “You must pay for your sin!”
B: Bullying from the flock
- Making threats. “Preach on that again and my family will leave.”
- Slander and gossip. “I heard Pastor Jim got fired because of inappropriate conduct.”
- Constant personal criticism. “He’s useless. He’s not called to be a pastor.”
- Crushing leaders with unreasonable expectations. “I’m not being fed.” “He hasn’t grown the church.”
- Unfair comparisons. “He doesn’t preach as well as the last guy.”
- Baseless accusations. “I got cancer because you don’t preach from the KJV.”
C: Bullying in the fellowship
- Name-calling: “You’re a Judas.” “You’re Jezebel.”
- Threatening to expose sin. “I’ll tell the pastor your dirty secret!”
- Damaging someone’s reputation: “She won’t be wearing white on her wedding day.”
- Looking down on someone on account of their youth (1 Tim 4:12). “What do you know? You’re just a kid.”
- Looking down on someone on account of their gender: “Woman, submit and do what you’re told.”
- Looking down on someone on account of their education. “Have you been to seminary? Then be quiet.”
- Promoting sin (which corrupts and enslaves): “In this church we’re free to do A, B, and C.”
- Discrimination: “Our church/denomination is the best. The others are stupid.”
- Marginalizing people on account of their past: “Divorced? You’re a sinner!”
- Demeaning those who are suffering: “If you had faith you’d toss those pills.”
- Slander: “She’s sick? She must be a sinning.”
A church that is subject to bullying will be depressed, weak, and unfruitful. If you are part of such a church, your choices are either confrontation or departure. But before you do anything, pray. Pray for grace. If you’ve been bullied, look to Jesus your Healer, and be better, not bitter.
And pray for wisdom. I know some will criticize me for not standing up sufficiently for victim’s rights, but often bullies are victims themselves. They need healing too. So pray for those who’ve hurt you (Matt 5:44).
And don’t forget to check the log in your own eye, for we are all broken people. We all need grace. The tragedy is that religion brings out the worst in us. Religion makes us ugly.
But the good news is that Jesus loves us at our worst and his love changes us. Just look at what he did to that bully of bullies Saul. He turned him into the Apostle of Grace!
Jesus loves all of us – bullies and their victims. By his grace we can all be free.
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